Esther Anderson: “They said I’d snubbed Hollywood”

Jamaican actress and filmmaker Esther Anderson on working with Chris Blackwell, Jimmy Cliff, and Bob Marley — as told to Tanya Batson-Savage

Bob Marley with Esther Anderson, 1973. Photograph courtesy Esther Anderson

I was born in St Mary Parish — Highgate. I have a sister, four brothers, and other half-brothers and -sisters — my father’s children. I was brought up in a strict household. My father was a complete atheist. We weren’t allowed to go to church or anything, but we got a lot of religion at school and there were church meetings in the countryside, Pocomania meetings going on in the square.

So Africa was prominent in my background, yet it wasn’t spoken about. You weren’t supposed to mix-up. We used to sneak out and go anyway, me and my brother.

My father was twenty years older than my mother. Whatever was going on between the two of them, we got caught up in the middle, and I found it very distressing. He got violent, and I wouldn’t stand for it. I ran away and came to live with my granny on Retirement Road in Kingston, where the old colonial houses were. They were kinda Scottish aristocrats, but my mother was “just a Indian.” The first place I was exposed to prejudice was in my own family.

At about fifteen, I visited the Yacht Club, downtown Kingston. These two society women called me to them, saying, “You have such a beautiful neck.” I’d never heard nothing like that in all my life! They told me they wanted me to enter the beauty pageant, but I’d never heard of no beauty pageant. That was the second-to-last beauty contest before Jamaica became independent.

What’s stayed with me more than anything is that there was a very tall black girl, Marva Morrison, and we were the last ones to get sponsorship. The Kingston people weren’t interested in us. But Marva became a model for Ebony magazine and I was in Vogue and all that.

I won the beauty contest, but they found out I was underage, so they gave me third prize — but I got tons of presents. My father was so mad. He said, “You disgrace the Anderson name!” He was gonna strangle me, so I got out of there. One of the girls in the competition, Martine Beckwith (one of the few Bond girls who were in two James Bond films), talked me into coming back to England with her. I sold a lot of the presents. Got money and went to England.

I went straight into my modelling career, and from the very beginning I was like a celebrity model. Chris [Blackwell] came and found me almost immediately, and asked me to come live with him. I had met him in Kingston — he was the first boy I ever kissed. We started Island Records together, and I used to deliver the records with him in the back of his Mini.

So there I was, a young girl living in London, Chris and I living together, and we ran the company together. In 1962 coming into ’63, I was invited to a film set (Becket, with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole) for the first time in my life. There was a man there who interested me the most. He had a little thing he called a viewfinder, and that’s what got me. He was Geoff Unsworth, an absolute god of photography and filmmaking. But I didn’t know that. Years later, on my first film, he was the cameraman. I got sick on that film, and I stuck with the director and cameraman. I never forgot that it was from then that I wanted to make films.

Jimmy Cliff came into my life when I was doing the acting business. Perry Henzell was somebody I knew, and I worked on [the film The Harder They Come] from the beginning. I had a friend in New York, Marjorie Lowe, a great hostess and supporter of the arts. I introduced her to Perry and Trevor Rhone — we helped him to develop that script over a long period of time. And I even threw a dinner for the backers of the film to help raise money. It took six years to make that film.

All that time, Perry was trying to get [American pop singer] Johnny Nash for the part, and I convinced him that Jimmy was made for it. It is the story of Jimmy’s life indirectly, except the part about being shot up and doing drugs and all that.

After that I got caught up with Bob [Marley], and filmed the footage that became known as the lost footage. But I was also doing photography, photojournalism, for this newspaper in England called Seven Days, and that was interesting, ’cause that was really stretching me.

I tried to go back to my acting career, but I had been given this NAACP Image Award for Warm December with Sydney Poitier, and been put forward for an Oscar, but I didn’t come back to acknowledge nothing. They said I’d snubbed Hollywood, and all the work I was offered was rubbish. So I went back to England and started to write.

I really enjoyed making The Three Dumas, one of a trilogy that I’m doing on men of colour who have contributed to popular culture, but people don’t know that they are of African descent. I was doing Pushkin to start with, when I ran into [Alexandre] Dumas. I would need a really big budget to deal with Pushkin, he was a brilliant, brilliant man. And he was a black man, black man. He wasn’t no mix or nothing. But all these things get buried down in our history.

The Marley film was meant to be last. Twelve years ago I got my footage back. One day a man came to interview me from Channel 4, and I saw the footage and said, that’s mine. He said he’d found [the film reels] in a garage in Canada. They were completely destroyed and had to be baked to bring the images back.

When the news broke on the BBC that [the footage, posted online] had received one million hits in eighteen hours, it was the same time that Usain Bolt and the other two [Jamaican athletes] went one-two-three [at the 2012 Olympics]! I said, Jesus Christ, it’s too much! I was screaming in the yard like a virago, I was so excited! Two things like that to happen, at once.

People love the Marley film because he’s a real human being — not the prophet, not the big Rasta man, but a young boy. It shares with you a very intimate portrait of my time with him, and the work we did together.

Now I’m writing a story about the beginnings of Negril, called Jamaica Farewell. It’s a helluva love story.

But what I hope will be my legacy is that, whatever it is that I do, the younger ones come along and actually pick up whatever baton I’ve left and run with it.